The drug decriminalisation debate may have died last week, but national outreach workers and drug campaign managers say that our mindsets, not just laws, may be changing on illicit substances. The “war on drugs” may be lost, but Australians could be more sympathetic to drug usage than previously thought.

Think tank Australia21’s report on drug decriminalisation last week asserted “Prohibition of Illicit Drugs is Killing and Criminalising Our Children”, citing “large numbers” of young people who have recorded unfair criminal convictions for minor drug use. This sparked a short-lived debate in which politicians and community leaders weighed in on the moral and legal implications of consuming illicit substances.

Crikey contacted several front-line workers in drug and alcohol services, several of whom were reluctant to have their endorsement of drug legalisation placed on the record. Many did agree, however, that aside from legislative change on the issue, we should consider the increasingly informed community’s views and their curiosity and changing ideas about punishment over drug use.

This can be seen in the canvassing of community opinion and current legal practices in place to divert those on minor drug charges away from incarceration penalties. Structures such as Drug Court (in operation in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia) already aim to divert drug users away from potential jail sentences for minor drug offences and into treatment. As the Drug Court of NSW describes in its statement of objective:

“Reducing a person’s dependency on drugs should reduce the person’s need to resort to criminal activity to support that dependency, and should also increase the person’s ability to function as a law-abiding citizen.”

Greg Denham, of the North Yarra Drug and Health Forum, told Crikey last week that we needed to reconceptualise addiction in order to understand how drug use affects the whole community. “One of the major challenges is that [those who come for treatment] bring a whole lifestyle with them. Then that person goes back to their community, which is often a drug-user community,” he said.

When considering whether to be lenient on minor drug use on a legislative level, the person who uses illicit substances should be taken into account. “They have habits, routines and lifestyles that you can’t necessarily just leave behind,” Denham said.

Key players in drug and alcohol services also claimed that the community is curious about how these issues play out, and that giving people honest information about it is paramount. The federal government’s 2010 National Drug Strategy Household report suggests not only that our usage of drugs has increased; overall acceptance of illicit drugs, cannabis in particular, has increased since 2007. Australia21 also cited occasional use of cannabis as the most prevalent illicit drug for young people, with up to 15% having smoked in the past 12 months.

While Australians still rank heroin and amphetamines as a higher danger to the community, occasional cannabis use seems to be the driving force behind the increasing acceptance of illicit substances since 2007.

The Australian Drug Foundation was one of the first groups to publicly support decriminalisation, claiming that Australia spends twice as much on law enforcement than prevention and support. Spokesperson Renee Lustman said that they experienced a flood of support on Twitter regarding this, explaining that it’s common for people, especially youth, to come searching for information online.

“We get lots of people comment on key issues online that we can take offline and say, ‘Have you seen this report on the issue’?” she said.

It’s this same acceptance of our curiosity that has led the ADF to its reliance on social media. The organisation curates and moderates several websites, webcasts and online content for young people, with these forums accepting of those wanting credible information. The use of the internet and smart phones are viewed by the ADF as one of the biggest potential game changers for seekers of drug treatment and information in the future.

The ADF’s somazone website contains fact sheets on the effects of major drug groups, legal information for younger than 18s, and stories from young people about their use of substances, some of whom are unapologetic for trying or continuing use of substances such as cannabis.

“We’re beyond the age of scaring people, I think, and beyond telling young people what to do,” Lustman said. “We’re supportive of wanting people to know more about it; that can only be a bonus.”

Denham agreed that aside from legislative change, we need to report accurately on the effects of drug use: “It’s about allowing people to make an informed decision.”

The Australia21 report prompted short-term debate, but those on the ground claim that managing the war on drugs is an issue of legislation and attitude. If more Australians are searching out info or even softening their views on minor drug use, law changes might be catching up to public opinion rather than changing it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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